How Paul Samuelson defined his own role as an economist as a technical expert

There has been some interest amidst historians on why Samuelson moved to MIT and how MIT turned itself into a top econ dept.

This new paper by Harro Maas of Utrecht University expands further and looks at how Samuelson became a technical expert and in the process turned economics into a technical subject:

This paper examines how Samuelson defined his own role as an economist as a technical expert, who walked what he called ‘the middle of the road’ to – seemingly – stay out of the realm of politics. As point of entry I discuss the highly tempting offers made by Theodore M. Schultz in the 1940s to come over to Chicago, which Schultz persistently repeated over a period of three years and despite strong Chicago faculty resistance. A contrast between Schultz’s own experiences as an economic expert at Iowa State, Samuelson’s work as an external consultant for the National Resources Planning Board during the Second World War and the firm support of the MIT administration for Samuelson’s research, serve to pinpoint the meaning of being technical for Samuelson, and the relation of the technical economic expert to the realm of politics.
Though not all agreed to this shift:

 Not all agreed with economics becoming technical. From 1947 Samuelson had been in irregular correspondence with a Brooklyn Jew and economics school teacher, Martin Wolfson. Samuelson clearly had been charmed byWolfson’s aphorisms, complaints about the state of economics, and requests for free copies of his books. But in later years “old Wolfson” was getting “uppity”.52 In 1972, Wolfson lambasted “the people who choose the Nobel Prize Winners in Economics” and angrily complained that economics had become a “technology, A Techne” and MIT ‘too mechanical, too technical, too technological” and summoned Samuelson to change the name of MIT to Charles Sanders Peirce University and to name the economics department after Thorstein Veblen (see Figure 2).

One can of course dismiss such postcards from minor figures though it speaks for Samuelson he never did so. There was a mild irony in Wolfson’s command. If there ever was an economist who trusted technicians, it was Veblen. “Veblen’s experts,” as Theodore Porter notes, “were hired experts who could serve capitalists as well as communists” (Porter 2009, 305). But Veblen’s technicians were engineers, knowledgeable about nature’s principles. In the post-war era, economists themselves had become engineers who carved out, with “neutral, self-effacing objectivity” (Porter 2009, 305), the logical space of economic policy. Naming the economics department after Veblen would have marked that shift.

 It is amazing to read such pieces. How economics profession has developed over the years is quite a tale. How thoughts of certain individuals and importance of certain econ departments (in NE US) has forced other depts all around the world to follow..Why the econ departments across the world have blindly adopted the line of thought taught in couple of Univs in US, is a tragedy. So much so, it does not seem to matter where you study. The indoctrination by US univs is near complete..


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